Print, Protest & the Polls: Suffrage and the Picture Postcard

In the twentieth century women’s suffrage campaign, print media was used as an effective medium to spread the message of the suffrage campaign, as well as a tool by suffrage opponents to criticise the movement. Print provided a valuable public voice to suffragists, helping the voices of the suffrage campaign to become stronger and more visible in a large public arena for one of the first times.

The introduction and overview page for the Print, Protest & the Polls exhibition is here.
Print, Protest and the Polls exhibition, lead image

The Irish Women’s Suffrage Movement, 1908 – 1918

A second wave of suffrage activism emerged in Ireland in the early 1900s, headed by several young women who had benefitted from advances in female educational opportunities. Developments on a more international scale, such as the formation of the radical English Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), also influenced this second generation of Irish suffragists.

The formation in 1908 of the Irish Women’s Franchise League (IWFL) introduced a new native organisation which followed the modern methods of suffrage campaigning heralded by the WSPU. The women behind the IWFL understood the complex political scenario of the Irish suffrage situation, where women from a colonised country struggling for independence fought for a vote in a British government. The following years saw the formation of a number of other Irish suffrage societies, who differed in their approaches and alliances. Women involved in militant or radical activity were known as suffragettes, with the wider term of suffragists used to represent non-militant suffrage campaigners.

The early stages of this second wave of Irish women’s suffrage saw Irish suffragists campaign passively for the inclusion of a female franchise clause on the upcoming Home Rule Bill. The exclusion of women’s suffrage from the Home Rule bill in 1912 altered the course of suffrage protest in Ireland. The IWFL engaged in pronounced militant activity for the first time, carrying out a campaign of militant activity throughout the country during the period of 1912 – 1914. Many suffragettes served prison terms in Irish and English prisons as a result. In protest at their lack of a vote, they smashed the windows of government buildings, heckled politicians, carried out attacks on post boxes full of letters, and organised protest events which publicly advertised their dissatisfaction.

Print and Irish Suffrage Protest

This second phase of Irish women’s suffrage saw a significant change in the methods and public visibility of the campaign. The first phase of the movement had taken place in small educated social circles, using letter writing campaigns and lectures. The new suffrage organisations of the early twentieth century create branding through the use of slogans and organisational colours, produced printed posters and handbills with their demands, and wrote political responses and articles for publication in newspapers and journals. The green and orange organisational colours of the Irish Women’s Franchise League (IWFL) became the recognisable Irish equivalent of the British suffrage colours of purple, white, and green.

This new phase of the campaign plays out through the medium of print. Print, in many forms, is used as a channel to spread the message and opinions of the suffrage campaign, as well as a tool by suffrage opponents to criticise and mock the movement. Through both negative and positive press, the voices of the suffrage campaign becomes stronger, louder, and more visible through print, when their speech and aims are present in a large public arena for one of the first times.

The lively and effective events of the new suffrage campaign were regularly reported in contemporary newspapers. The mass suffrage rallies, public lectures, and militant suffragette activity and imprisonment were broadcast in print and brought the cause into the daily news, allowing the women involved to publicise their aims and explain their actions. These actions would help lead to the changes to the law to allow women to become equal citizens to men.

A black-and-white photograph of a child holding a sign reading 'The Irish Women Demand the Vote'
Promotional image for Irish suffrage, origin unknown. Image courtesy of the LSE Library

Postcards and Public Perceptions

The early twentieth century was the Golden Age of picture postcards. Developments in printing led to the production of a large range of high quality cards at low prices. They were used as a cheap and effective method of circulating promotion and propaganda by the suffrage campaign.

Suffrage postcards show a wide range of portrayals of those involved in the suffrage movement. The images on the postcards can be both serious and comical, flattering and insulting, and show both support and hostility to the campaign. Women’s suffrage was a postcard theme commonly used by commercial publishers. They produced designs which frequently showed suffrage campaigners in uncomplimentary representations. This postcard imagery mainly focused on the “suffragette” – the female campaigners involved in militant political activity. These negative images provided a poor representation of suffrage campaigners to the general public.

Suffrage campaigners worked hard to counteract the mainly negative public image which was circulated through print. Commercial publishers also produced postcards which would appeal to suffrage sympathisers. These showed milder depictions of the suffrage issue, and often showed the women involved as well-dressed, respectable, and attractive – in contrast to the popular image of the angry, ugly suffragette. Images of children and animals were used to gently display what may have been viewed as a serious or offensive topic to some, as well as to add humour to the subject. Postcards also dealt with imagery surrounding the ‘New Woman’, particularly with the changes in fashion linked to the suffrage movement, and the new use of bicycles by women during this period.

Pro-suffrage postcards, circa 1908 – 1912

These three postcards are part of a series designed as a response to another anti-suffrage postcard series which uses the same rhyme verse of ‘The House that Man built’. ‘The House that Man Built’ refers to the British House of Parliament, and the cards present a refined and respectable image of the suffragettes attempting to gain access.

Child-themed suffrage postcards, circa 1908 – 1912

A selection of the suffrage postcards show images involving children acting out scenes related to the subject of women’s fight to vote. In these postcards, children act out the roles of suffrage campaigners – with one showing the support of her friend ‘the war minister’, another posting a letter to British Prime Minister Asquith, and another scolding her Jack-in-the-box toy for his sexism.

Animal-themed suffrage postcards, circa 1908 – 1912

Animals were a common joke theme used in suffrage postcards. In these examples, we see the staunch male ‘British Bulldog’ arguing against votes for women. A “mother-in-law” also appears in the form of a clucking chicken, with the banner of the English Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) above her. Suffragettes were often dismissively represented as a range of birds and animals such as hens, chicken, geese, cats, and kittens.